Andy Craig, Owner, Elevator Speech
In 2003, I coached a company that makes liquid cleaners that schools, hospitals and bus depots use to wash their floors and countertops. A team of about 150 executives and salespeople spent a lot of time talking about the company’s “sustainable earth” products and sustainability emphasis in research and development.
I couldn’t have cared less. Frankly, it didn’t mean anything to me. This was 2003, and sustainability wasn’t a household word. Furthermore, I had no idea how its “sustainability” efforts were any different from GE’s or Dell’s or one of its chief competitors. After all, if you’re in commodity industry and you’re using commodity language, like “sustainability,” then what makes you any different from anyone else?
I asked the team to tell me the single best story they could think of that demonstrated the environmental safety and quality of its cleaning products.
After four hours, one executive finally said: “Before we take a new cleaning product to market, we take a goldfish and drop it in a bucket of that product. If the goldfish swims, we know those chemicals are safe enough to seep into the earth. In fact, you could drink them and be just fine. We’ve done it before.”
However, he continued, “If the goldfish dies, we know we’ve got a massive quality control issue on our hands, and we have to go back to the drawing board. That’s what sustainability means to us.”
Now, that’s a concrete, vivid and compelling illustration of an incredibly abstract concept, like sustainability. That’s a memorable—sticky—story.
That’s weekend language.
When it comes to effective communication, the story is everything. But it’s the thing almost every executive forgets.
Except on weekends.
Stories are the superglue of communication and a staple of weekend language. Chip and Dan Heath’s best-selling book, “Made to Stick,” describes stories as the stickiest, most memorable, most portable form of communication. They’re a lot more interesting than commodity language, jargon or lists of products and services. The stories you tell at weekend parties stick far more often than the corporate blather we spew in the boardroom.
Think about it: On weekends, we’re all great communicators. When I call my mom every Saturday to discuss the events of the week, I don’t recount the laundry list of things I did the previous Wednesday or tell her how I “optimized my presentation coaching services to further monetize my business.”
Instead, I tell her how her shy granddaughter performed at the school talent show in front of hundreds of people. We laugh along to the story of her grandson swallowing his front tooth, which had fallen out, and stressing at the thought of a snub from the tooth fairy.
And what does she do with those stories? She turns around and tells them to my father, her mother and sister, and her girlfriends. That’s what the Heath brothers mean by “sticky” communication.
On the weekends, our speech is conversational, simple, clear and interesting. We resist the siren call of jargon and four-letter acronyms. Instead, our defaults are anecdotes and analogies. At picnics and over the backyard fence, people actually pay attention when we talk. They smile. They ask questions. And they repeat our tales to their spouses, friends and significant others on the other side of the room.
But then Monday morning hits. We step into the office and downshift into product feature lists, ten-point plans that no one cares about and Corporate Klingon—that abstract, esoteric and indecipherable blather we think sounds smart and “high-level,” but is really only understood by other Klingons.
The simple truth is that jargon and acronyms are the epitome of stupidity. If that’s how you’re talking to customers, prospects, partners or employees during the week, then you’re just moving your lips. You’re not truly communicating.
Good communication isn’t rocket science. We’re all born storytellers, but that often fades away in presentations, customer meetings or media interviews. If you’re thinking that storytelling sounds almost too trivial—that there’s more to effective communication than just stories—you’re right. But never forget that stories are the fundamental building blocks of effective communication. And while telling stories couldn’t be any simpler, the result is truly magical.
So, here’s your homework:
First, listen to the difference between the language you use on weekends vs. weekdays. Become aware of your strengths as a weekend storyteller so you can drag them into your weekday communications.
Second, think of your best story at work. Are you using weekend language to tell it? Are customers, employees, partners or media reporters repeating it back to you or others?
If not, you might be a weekday communicator who needs to go fishing for some weekend language.
Andy Craig is a presentation coach, media trainer and owner of Elevator Speech, Inc. His clients include Microsoft, CA (Computer Associates), Deloitte, Humana, Reebok, Ingram Micro, Petrobras.